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Algarve Cup

Streak’s snapped, but US must regroup in Algarve

The U.S. women are in an unfamiliar position, but there are lessons to be learned from Friday's loss to Sweden. (Copyright Patricia Giobetti)

Two years ago to the day the streak began in Portugal, and it is in Portugal where it ends.

All good things must come to an end. If there were ever a good time to lose, it’s now. Lessons are learned in defeat.

Clichés abound for the U.S. women, but they are as applicable as ever after a 1-0 loss to Sweden in Algarve Cup group play.

With the defeat to their former coach, Pia Sundhage, the Americans saw their 43-game unbeaten streak snapped and came to the realization that, like two years ago when they last tasted defeat, they won’t be playing in the Algarve Cup final.

The play has been ugly, but the long-term takeaways could be useful for the U.S. women, who aren’t invincible after all.

Sweden put on one of the most suffocating defensive displays against the U.S. in recent memory, anchored by Nilla Fischer. Until the final minutes, when the U.S. pushed forward with more defensive disregard in search of an equalizer, the Americans lacked many significant goal-scoring opportunities. Most early chances — aside from the questionable penalty kick, earned by Amy Rodriguez and missed by Abby Wambach — in the first half came from pressing Sweden’s backs and goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, who quickl sped up those actions to avoid getting caught on the ball.

But the Americans were uninspiring in the attack for the second straight match, this time with Rodriguez and Wambach up front instead of the Christen Press-Sydney Leroux pairing in Wednesday’s 1-1 draw against Japan. That goal, the United States’ only of the tournament thus far, happened as a result of Leroux chasing down the goalkeeper and deflecting a clearance into the net. Sustained attacks whimpered in the final third that day, much like Friday.

They are missing the injured Alex Morgan, but Leroux, Press and Wambach are equally dangerous in their own rights — things just haven’t been clicking in Portugal.

Both matches saw a lack of cohesion from the Americans, particularly in the middle. Against Japan, that was the result of identifying the wings as an area to exploit. But on Friday against Sweden, the productivity from the flanks dissipated, and the central midfield pairing of Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian was largely bypassed for direct play, something to be expected with a Wambach-Rodriguez pairing up top.

What that left, however, was a largely invisible midfield for the United States that played straight into Sweden’s gameplan, constructed by ex-U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, who knows a thing or two about this American squad. Fischer ate up every long-ball that came her way, Caroline Seger took over the center of the park and Lindahl made the few big saves – including the penalty – that need to be made in big matches such as this.

They have come out flat two straight games against two of the better teams in the world. With just over a year before the World Cup, that should worry the United States women.

The Algarve Cup, however, is about learning. In some cases that means bringing a young squad to learn lessons in defeat, like Japan did in 2013. For Sermanni, the goal has been to find the right mix and figure out who seems ready for the 2015 World Cup. That meant – and still means for the last two games in Portugal – that giving players chances on the pitch is equally important to winning matches.

Streaks come and go, and it is better that they fall at a more inconsequential time like at the Algarve Cup, and not at the World Cup (or even in qualifying — 2010 hiccups are still fresh in the memory). This unbeaten run was historic, and the 80-game home unbeaten streak is still active and astounding. What’s needed now from the Americans is a convincing performance against Denmark on Monday and another strong showing in Wednesday’s placement game, which could be the first of three in a row against China, since two friendlies are already scheduled for April.

Friday brought the U.S. women a feeling with which they aren’t very familiar. In the end, that won’t be the worst thing to feel before the homestretch of World Cup preparations, but there is a great deal of pride on the line in Portugal. The U.S. women will want to at least make sure they are playing for third, and not fifth, which would be a shocking placing for the world’s No. 1 team.

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